To the northeast of Mons you cross the border into Brabant, whose southern French-speaking districts – known as Brabant Walloon – form a band of countryside that rolls up to and around Waterloo, which is now pretty much a suburb of Brussels. Nivelles is the obvious distraction en route, an amiable, workaday town worth a visit for its interesting church as well as its proximity to the beguiling ruins of the Cistercian abbey at Villers-la-Ville, a short car ride away (train travellers have to make the trip via Charleroi). The Hergé museum, meanwhile, is the highlight of the otherwise entirely missable new town of Louvain-la-Neuve.
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NIVELLES grew up around its abbey, which was founded in the seventh century and became one of the most powerful religious houses in Brabant until its suppression by the French Revolutionary Army in 1798. Nowadays, the abbey is recalled by the town’s one and only significant sight, the Collégiale Ste-Gertrude, a vast edifice that utterly dominates the Grande-Place at the heart of the town, and was erected as the abbey church in the tenth century. Little is known of Gertrude, but her cult was very popular on account of her supposed gentleness – her symbol is a pastoral staff with a mouse running along it. Built in the Ottonian style (the forerunner of Romanesque), with a transept and chancel at each end of the nave, the church itself is a beautiful and unusual construction, in better shape now than it has been for years following a long restoration. The west chancel represents imperial authority, the east papal – an architectural illustration of the tension between the pope and the emperor that defined much of Otto’s reign. The interior is extremely simple, its long and lofty nave supported by sturdy pillars, between which sits a flashy oak and marble pulpit by the eighteenth-century Belgian artist Laurent Delvaux; the heavily restored, fifteenth-century wooden wagon kept at the western end of the church is used to carry the shrine of Ste Gertrude in procession through the fields once a year. Unfortunately, the original thirteenth-century shrine was destroyed in 1940, but a modern replacement has been made and the traditional autumn procession has recently been revived.
Outside, the cloisters are lovely, and you can see them and other parts of the church that are otherwise out of bounds on regular guided tours (t 067 84 08 64). Although usually in French, tours can be given in English if you book in advance, and take in the large Salle Impériale over the west choir, a copy of Ste Gertrude’s shrine and what remains of the original and the large Romanesque crypt, where the foundations of a Merovingian chapel and church (seventh-century) and three Carolingian churches (ninth- and tenth-century) have been discovered, as well as the tombs of Ste Gertrude and some of her relations.
The Abbaye de Villers
The Abbaye de Villers
The ruined Cistercian Abbaye de Villers, at rue de l’Abbaye 55 (wwww.villers.be), nestles in a lovely wooded dell on the edge of VILLERS-LA-VILLE, just off the N93 some 16km east of Nivelles, and is altogether one of the most haunting and evocative sights in the whole of Belgium. The first monastic community settled here in 1146, consisting of just one abbot and twelve monks. Subsequently the abbey became a wealthy local landowner, managing a domain of several thousand acres, with numbers that rose to about a hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers. A healthy annual income funded the construction of an extensive monastic complex, most of which was erected in the thirteenth century, though the less austere structures, such as the Abbot’s Palace, went up in a second spurt of activity some four hundred years later. In 1794 French revolutionaries ransacked the monastery, and later a railway was ploughed through the grounds, but more than enough survives – albeit in various states of decay – to pick out Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance features and to make some kind of mental reconstruction of abbey life possible.
From the entrance, a path crosses the courtyard in front of the Abbot’s Palace to reach the warming room (chauffoir), the only place in the monastery where a fire would have been kept going all winter, and which still has its original chimney. The fire provided a little heat to the adjacent rooms: on one side the monks’ workroom (salle des moines), used for reading and studying; on the other the large Romanesque-Gothic refectory (réfectoire), lit by ribbed twin windows topped with chunky rose windows. Next door is the kitchen (cuisine), which contains a few remnants of the drainage system which once piped waste to the river, and of a central hearth, whose chimney helped air the room. Just behind this lies the pantry (salle des convers), where a segment of the original vaulting has survived, supported by a single column, and beyond, on the northwestern edge of the complex, is the guest house (brasserie), one of the abbey’s biggest and oldest buildings. The most spectacular building, however, is the church (église), which fills out the north corner of the complex. With pure lines and elegant proportions, it displays the change from Romanesque to Gothic – the transept and choir are the first known examples of Brabantine Gothic. The building has the dimensions of a cathedral, 90m long and 40m wide, with a majestic nave whose roof was supported on strong cylindrical columns. An unusual feature is the series of bull’s-eye windows which light the transepts. Of the original twelfth-century cloister (cloître) adjoining the church, a pair of twin windows is pretty much all that remains, flanked by a two-storey section of the old monks’ quarters.